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Taking it personally

JSU hopes to take ‘O’ out of offense at FSU

Zerrick Cooper

Zerrick Cooper scrambles for yardage against Florida State in 2020.

JACKSONVILLE — Jacksonville State suffering its first shutout since 2012 wasn’t fun for fans. It didn’t feel so great for players, either.

“We took it personally,” running back Josh Samuels said. “We always want to make big plays. Everybody wants to make big plays.”

The Gamecocks, 0-1 after a 31-0 loss to UAB on Sept. 1, look to rebound in another game against FBS competition this week. They go to Florida State (0-1) nearly a year after leading the Seminoles as late as the third quarter.

Different year, different teams by the same names.

JSU played its first game of the season at Florida State a year ago. Florida State played its third, coming off of losses to Georgia Tech and Miami.

JSU’s offense put up 307 yards, 18 first downs, two touchdowns and a field goal en route to that 41-24 loss at FSU in October of 2020. The Gamecocks managed 156 total yards, eight first downs and no points against UAB for myriad reasons.

One, UAB’s defense is stout. The Blazers finished 2020 ranked seventh in FBS football in total defense.

“This is the best defense we’ve played since I’ve been here, probably outside of Michigan State in 2014, my first game as the head coach,” Grass said. “That team ended up a top-five team and getting beat in the Rose Bowl.

“That front seven is no joke.”

Two, JSU’s offense has injury woes. Zion Webb, who quarterbacked JSU to an Ohio Valley Conference title while filling in for injured Zerrick Cooper in the spring, is out with the knee injury he suffered in a second-round playoff loss to Delaware. That much was broadly known going into the UAB game.

Not as broadly known going into that game were injuries to Uriah West (shoulder), JSU’s second-leading rusher a year ago, and Dave Russell III (leg), JSU’s second-leading receiver and first among wide receivers.

Like Webb, West suffered his injury against Delaware and is questionable to return this season, certainly not in the season’s first half. JSU coach John Grass said the injury, sustained in May, takes three to five months to mend.

Russell suffered a broken leg in an automobile accident and will not play this season, Grass said.

That only partially explains why JSU went with a conservative passing game against UAB. The plan for short drops and quick, back-shoulder passes was born out of concern for UAB’s front seven and keeping Cooper healthy for important AQ7 conference games to come.

“It is a concern,” Grass said. “Definitely, it’s a factor. You sit there, trying to throw the ball down the field, and you’re going to have trouble blocking their front. You don’t want your quarterback taking hits.

“You want to get the ball out of his hand really quickly.”

The Gamecocks came in looking to play a possession game, hoping to shorten the time their defense spent on the field, but threw too many times out of run-pass options, Grass said.

He said the game plan for UAB was similar to game plans JSU used in other games against FBS competition on his watch. The execution wasn’t good enough to sustain drives this time.

Several pre-snap penalties, also tied to the game plan, played a big role. Grass added motions and shifts the Gamecocks don’t normally deploy, and inexperience in some areas caused problems handling the tweaks designed to combat UAB’s front seven.

“You play games like this, and we’ve played our share of them over the years, and you’ve got to play your A-plus game,” Grass said. “We didn’t do that.

“UAB had a little bit to do with that, too.”

As JSU readies to play back-to-back games against FBS competition for the first time since opening with Georgia Tech and Florida State in 2009, expect Grass to go with a similar plan. He still must protect Cooper for conference games, and sacks would offset any big plays JSU might hit with a riskier plan.

The hope is for better execution against a Florida State team that took ninth-ranked Notre Dame to overtime Monday.

It might help that Florida State is coming off of a short week, following an emotional, nationally televised game. JSU had 10 days to prepare after playing a rare Wednesday game last week.

“Every game has a life of its own,” Grass said. “You’ve got to make plays when the opportunity presents itself.”

Sports Writer Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter: @jmedley_star.